Linda Hart in Surviving Grace(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Linda Hart in Surviving Grace
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Vivacious Linda Hart, who memorably portrayed Moonface Martin's moll in the Lincoln Center production of Anything Goes and was a superb Mazeppa in the Bette Midler TV-movie of Gypsy, is currently appearing as Madge Wellington--a stage actress who deigns to do a TV series--in Trish Vradenburg's Surviving Grace at the Union Square Theatre.

Over lunch at the Blue Water Grill, the actress explains that her character is "very difficult, over the top. It's because she's lowered herself to play a waitress on this television show, Order Up. Yet, as you see in Act Two, she's really a warm, wonderful person who's had to fight her way to the top. I know so many people in the business that have had her life, women who are bitter on the outside but are wonderful human beings." The play's main focus is on the relationship between the TV show's producer, played by Illeana Douglas, and her mother (Doris Belack), an Alzheimer's victim.

During its preview period, Surviving Grace--a rewritten version of a one performance, 1996 Broadway flop titled The Apple Doesn't Fall...--has undergone some fine-tuning. "We've taken 30 minutes off the show," says Hart. Gone is Nurse Pam, a second character that she played: "She wore a cute little red wig. She was from Texas. She was my favorite part of the show because Linda Hart is from Texas, but it didn't advance the story." Added to the proceedings, notes Hart, is "a piece at the end of the show which makes reference to Gypsy. Everyone will think I wrote it and made them put it in! I sing about two notes of something. Jack Hofsiss, our director, wanted me to sing bits of three songs, but I said, 'Jack, that's too much!'"

Hart has been singing since she was four. The oldest of three ("I have two younger brothers"), she's from a family of ministers who have recorded gospel music as The Harts for many years. "It's where all of my acting ability comes from," she insists. "I give thanks to God and to my mom and dad for that upbringing. In my opinion, 50 percent of acting is not being fearful."

Inspired by Carol Burnett, whom she admired on television, Hart says that her first ambition was to be a comedic actress. "I did research and found out that Carol Burnett went to Hollywood High School," she relates. "I thought that's all you needed to do." After hearing Hart sing, John Engel, who ran the Hollywood High drama department, asked her to audition for a production of Brigadoon. Since she was saddled with a thick Texas accent, Hart felt sure that she'd be unable to appear in a musical set in Scotland; however, she worked with Engel and the end result proved bonny. Later, Engel persuaded her to attend Los Angeles City College, where he was a professor. "He's totally the reason I went from singing to acting," Hart says now. "He's a very handsome, silver-haired man who has played a doctor on General Hospital for 10 years."

Following graduation, Hart was offered work with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, but a Columbia record contract required that she and her family move to Nashville. During the next four years there, she made several appearances on Johnny Cash's popular TV show. Kenny Rogers, a former member of The New Christy Minstrels, suggested that Hart join that singing group. "He said that I'd learn about show business and world-traveling," she recalls. "I really enjoyed it."

After the Minstrels, Hart ventured to the Las Vegas Strip, where she was "an opening act for a lot of stars: Buddy Hackett, Frank Gorshin, Phyllis Diller...." However, she didn't envision herself as a country singer and felt that she'd "gotten off my original path." Then her boyfriend at the time saw an ad in the Hollywood Reporter: Auditions were being held for Bette Midler's new Harlettes. The notice specified that candidates "Must sing well, dance great, and have attitude." One of 200 at the first audition, Hart kept getting callbacks as the number dwindled to 60, then half that and, finally, a dozen.

"That's when Bette Midler came in," Hart remembers. "She asked her friend Tina Turner to sit in and help her cast the new Harlettes. It was one of the most exciting auditions of my life. They said, 'You're all great. We want to know you and what you do best. That's what Bette wants to see.' I sang 'Amazing Grace.' At the end, Bette had a huge smile on her face and was a little glassy-eyed. I felt I had really touched her." For the next two years, Hart was a Harlette--"with Katey Sagal, who later did Married With Children, and Franny McCartney. I was with Bette on the only world tour she's ever done." Hart's Broadway debut occurred in December 1979, when Bette! Divine Madness premiered at the Majestic.

Since then, she's appeared in the Midler movies Stella and Get Shorty ("We have no scenes together in that") and in the TV version of Gypsy. "It was great to play Mazeppa," she says. "When I was a little girl, I watched the film version [with Rosalind Russell] over and over on TV. I said that one day I'd play Gypsy, Mama Rose, and Mazeppa. At this point, I don't think I'm going to play Gypsy...but, some day, I'm going to play Mama Rose!"

Her friendship with Midler continues: "Last month, she took me and my husband and a couple of friends to see all the [New York City] restoration her organization is doing." Hart met her husband, investment banker Will Forster, through a friend, actress Stephanie Zimbalist. "Her brother, Efrem Zimbalist III, went to Harvard with my husband," she explains. "She brought Will to my birthday party 10 years ago, and we've been married for six years."

Anyone who saw Hart in the 1987 revival of Anything Goes remembers her effervescent performance. "I was doing a gospel act at the Ballroom and someone said I should talk to Jerry Zaks about playing Reno Sweeney," she relates. "I met him, but the part had just been cast [with Patti LuPone]. He said that he'd like me to try out for the gangster's moll. I got the part and was later asked to be the understudy for Reno. I ended up doing Reno for a while, between Patti and Leslie Uggams. I loved Bill McCutcheon, who won a Tony as Moonface Martin; he just passed away. I won a Theatre World Award for that show."

In 1989, Hart appeared in the short-lived Sid Caesar on Broadway. "Doing all the Imogene Coca sketches opposite Sid was an absolute thrill," she says. "Sid wanted to keep things as they were originally done. Perhaps it should have been updated; I don't know. But playing opposite Sid was a real highlight of my career." Yet the role that has brought Hart the most satisfaction thus far, she says, was Bunny Weinberger in the 1999 Off-Broadway revival of Gemini.

"I read the script and it had the "f"-word on every page," she says of that project. "In my family, if you used the "f"-word, your life was basically over. When I phoned my mom and told her I got the part, she said, 'You can't possibly take it.' I went to my minister, who said, 'Honey, it's a play.' I said, 'I know, but I never want to do something that I couldn't invite my parents to.' My mom Fed-Exed a letter: 'Whatever you do, Linda, please do not take this part. Your career will be over.' I had it framed and hung it in my dressing room. I'd never overcome such an obstacle...and never in my life have I gotten such positive reviews."

Hart is in two films that are about to be released: "In Showtime with Robert DeNiro and Eddie Murphy, my part has been cut way down," she says. "In The First $20 Million, which comes out in May, I play a wonderfully eccentric, sexy, San Francisco landlady who rents a house to male students. Mick Jackson directed." On April 1, Hart will be reunited with Patti LuPone and Howard McGillin at the Vivian Beaumont for "a one-night-only performance of Anything Goes with full orchestra, a full cast and chorus. I don't know how much like the [1987] production it will be, because we have to do it on the set of Contact. That doesn't have a proper stage for tapping; details haven't been worked out. [The performance will be] a toast to Joseph F. Cullman, the philanthropist, who's turning 90."

Possibly in Hart's future is the Broadway musical version of Hairspray, directed by Jack O'Brien. "I'm in negotiations," she says. "I've done four workshops of the show. It starts rehearsals on April 15 and opens on August 25--but I don't know if I'm going to do it." Lunch ends, and the charming Linda Hart hurries off to Surviving Grace, opening at the Union Square on March 12.